Book Review: Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement



Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement

Edited by Robbie Lieberman and Clarence Lang

New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

As Robbie Lieberman and Clarence Lang, editors of the valuable new collection of essays Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Struggle, note, two pitfalls particularly afflict scholarship on post World War II struggles for African American freedom and equality. The first suggests that the Cold War actually aided the struggle for African American civil rights. According to this view, the international contest between the United States and its political and economic allies and the Soviet Union and its allies for the hearts and minds of the emerging nations of Asia and Africa made Jim Crow segregation in the United States a liability. As a result civil rights activists had a leverage that they never had before – as demonstrated in the Brown v. The Board of Education decision by the United States Supreme Court in which the value of Jim Crow for Soviet propaganda was cited as justification for the ruling of the court. However, Lieberman and Lang point out, such scholarship often overlooks the way the struggle for African American equality was deformed by the Cold War.

The other pitfall, the editors claim, is what has become known as the “long Civil Rights Movement” school of scholarship. This trend rightly argues that the African American freedom struggle did not begin with Brown or when Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat on a bus – or end with the Voting Rights Act or the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. In particular, it sees the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as closely tied to both the Left of the 1930s and 1940s and the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While the editors are more sympathetic to this position than the basically anti-Left one that sees the Cold War as a plus for civil rights, they observe that it, too, has a number of shortcomings. First, it tends to underestimate the sheer destruction of the McCarthy Era. Second, it also flattens out the particularities of the different historical moments.

Lang and Lieberman, and the other writers of the various essays in the volume, remind us of how powerful a force the left (especially the CPUSA) was in the political and cultural life of the African American community in the 1940s. Such left-led organizations as the Civil Rights Congress, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and the National Negro Labor Council were vibrant parts of the political landscape. Many major Black newspapers, including the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Michigan Chronicle, the People’s Voice and the California Eagle, had Communists and other leftists as editors, reporters and even publishers. Many leading Black artists and intellectuals, such as Paul Robeson, Hazel Scott, W.E.B. Du Bois, Canada Lee, Jacob Lawrence, Langston Hughes, Rose McClendon and Aaron Douglass, publicly participated in what might be thought of as the extended Popular Front. A public leader of the CPUSA, Benjamin Davis, was elected to the New York City Council from Harlem. Left-led or influenced unions, such as the United Auto Workers, Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, United Packinghouse Workers, United Electrical Workers, National Maritime Union, and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, provided important support for the Black freedom struggle as well as the base for an emergent African American trade union leadership.

As the essays in Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement show, the McCarthy Era largely smashed this left organizational and institutional base in the Black community. By 1956, the Civil Rights Congress, the National Negro Labor Council, the Council on African Affairs, Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedom, and the Southern Negro Youth Congress were destroyed. Benjamin Davis was in prison; other black radicals, such as Henry Winston, James Jackson, Claudia Jones and C.L.R. James, were imprisoned, deported, or hiding underground. The US government seized the passports of Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois. Black radicals had been largely removed from leading positions in the African American press. Leftists were purged from the leadership, and often the membership, of such unions as the UAW and NMU. Other left-led unions were expelled from the CIO and, with the exception of the ILWU and the partial exception of the United Electrical Workers, wiped out by anti-Communist union raiding and government and employer repression. (The only significant pocket of left African American union leadership remained in the Packinghouse Workers.) One result of this deformation was to make international affairs, peace, economics and, indeed, almost any issue other than a narrow view of Jim Crow itself virtually off-limits for “mainstream” Civil Rights organizations and leaders in the 1950s and for much of the 1960s where before even liberal and often anti-Communist organizations like the NAACP would regularly take an internationalist anti-imperialist view.

The essays in Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement look at the impact of the McCarthy Era on African Americans in the labor movement, the peace movement, Black women’s politics, and the struggle against Jim Crow as well as on the related and parallel movement for Mexican American civil rights. One of the great strengths of the book is that, with the exception of Robbie Lieberman, the contributors are all newer scholars of the left – which is to say that it provides a look at where scholarship on African Americans and the Left is going. Another strength is that even though the essays in the book chronicle the lost possibilities for black liberation and progressive change caused by McCarthyite anti-Communism, they do lay out some of the ways that the black Left of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s influenced the African American freedom movement in the 1960s and beyond – though even more of this might have been good. The essays pretty much all focus on the circles of the Communist left with the exception of Rachel Peterson’s excellent piece on the more or less Trotskyist Correspondence group of Detroit led by C.L.R. James and including such remarkable activists as James and Grace Boggs and Marty Glaberman. While the writers are all academics, their essays are written in a user friendly style and are of interest to anyone who cares about the history of the African American freedom movement and the role the left has played in that movement as well as what was lost in the McCarthy Era.